Canada Lynx-Recovery

This file photo shows a Canada lynx heading into the Rio Grande National Forest near Creede, Colo.

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Montana’s lone congressman has introduced a bill that could streamline timber work on federal land.

The Forest Information Reform (FIR) Act, introduced by Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, was submitted to the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday.

If passed, the FIR Act would amend federal law to clarify that the Secretary of Agriculture and Secretary of the Interior aren’t required to re-consult over land management plans or land use plans under certain circumstances. Those circumstances include when “a species is listed, critical habitat is designated, or new information concerning a listed species or critical habitat becomes available.’’

The bill, which is sponsored by eight other Republican lawmakers, targets precedent set in a 2015 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision over critical Canada lynx habitat.

In the lawsuit between the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center and the Forest Service, the court held that when “new information” indicates a land management plan’s direction might jeopardize a federally-protected species, BLM or the Forest Service must reconsult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That included when new species are listed as threatened or critical habitat is designated.

Land management plans are broad documents that guide decisions on public lands, but don’t authorize specific projects, like timber sales. Many who oppose the Cottonwood decision argue requiring consultation forces agencies to “start from scratch” on land management plans.

John Meyer, attorney for Cottonwood, said the decision is important because it requires the Forest Service to “periodically review its plans to ensure that it is protecting species.”

“The single reason Canada lynx are threatened… is because forest plans were not adequate to protect them,” Meyer said.

Removing the regulation that ensures plans have adequate protections would be “a death sentence” not only for Canada lynx, but for all endangered species, he said.

In a news release, Rosendale said greater flexibility for the Forest Service will benefit forest management jobs and timber projects in Montana.

“This bill is a common sense solution that will bring Forest Service management out of a perpetual cycle of litigation and into a new era of efficiency by reversing the disastrous Cottonwood decision,” he said.

Julia Altemus, executive director of the Montana Wood Products Association, said Rosendale’s bill corrects ongoing deficiencies created by the Cottonwood decision. The bill “is vitally important to ensuring timber harvest and forest restoration projects move forward in a timely manner,” she said.

Bill Imbergamo, executive director of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, said the Cottonwood decision doesn’t benefit conservation and “wastes resources that could be used to reduce fire danger and improve wildlife habitat.”

Rosendale’s bill “wouldn’t change or eliminate any species protection — it merely ensures that species conservation needs get addressed at the project level,” he said.

Meyer said looking at only the project-level impacts of public lands decisions prevents agencies from sufficiently addressing issues like climate change.

Montana lawmakers have introduced similar bills targeting the Cottonwood rules before. In 2017, Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester introduced legislation to reverse the consultation requirement.

Last June, Daines introduced a bill that would have created a new standard for re-initiating consultation on forest plans when “new information” on threatened species emerges.

This January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service proposed revisions to interagency consultation regulations under the Endangered Species Act. The changes would remove the consultation requirement for land management plans. The comment period for the proposal ended last week.

Last Thursday, Rosendale and Daines sent a letter to both agencies urging them to adopt the changes. Tester said he also supported the agencies’ proposed revisions.

A day later, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte sent a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service expressing “strong support” for the proposal.

“When it comes to caring for Montana’s forests, we should be focused on increasing their health and resilience—not on baseless lawsuits that cost our state jobs and resources needed to invest in forest restoration,” Gianforte said at the time.

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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